1. Upcoming business on TheyWorkForYou

    TheyWorkForYou has, until now, only covered things that have already happened, be that Commons main chamber debates since 1935, Public Bill committees back to 2000, or all debates in the modern Northern Ireland Assembly.

    From today, we are taking the UK Parliament’s upcoming business calendar and feeding it into our database and search engine, which means some notable new features. Firstly, and most simply, you can browse what’s on today (or the next day Parliament is sitting), or 16th May. Secondly, you can easily search this data, to e.g. see if there will be something happening regarding Twickenham. And best of all, if you’re signed up for an email alert – see below for instructions – you’ll get an email about any matching future business along with the matching new Hansard data we already send. We currently send about 25,000 alerts a day, with over 65,000 email addresses signed up to over 111,000 alerts.

    Mark originally wrote some code to scrape Parliament’s business papers, but this sadly proved too fragile, so we settled on Parliament’s calendar which covers most of the same information and more importantly has (mostly) machine-readable data. Duncan and I worked on this intermittently amidst our other activities, with Duncan concentrating on the importer and updating our search indexer (thanks as ever to Xapian) whilst I got on with adding and integrating the new data into the site.

    I’ve also taken the opportunity to rejig the home page (and fix the long-standing bug with popular searches that meant it was nearly always Linda Gilroy MP!) to remove the confusingly dense amount of recent links, bring it more in line with the recently refreshed Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly home pages, and provide more information to users who might not have any idea what the site covers.

    Signing up for an email alert: If you want to receive an email alert on a particular person (MP, Lord, MLA or MSP), visit their page on TheyWorkForYou and follow the “Email me updates” link. If you would like alerts for a particular word or phrase, or anything else, simply do a search for what you’re after, then follow the email alert or RSS links to the right of the results page.

  2. Helping voters in the devolved elections

    As well as council elections and the referendum, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly are holding elections this May. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are accompanying boundary changes, meaning this year you might be voting in a different constituency from last time.

    To help people, as we’ve again had a few requests, our service from the 2010 general election is back, at http://www.theyworkforyou.com/boundaries/, just for the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly. Our generic lookup service MaPit also provides programmatic access to these results (technical footnote).

    Alongside this service, we have refreshed our Scotland and Northern Ireland front pages, to slightly better display and access the wide array of information TheyWorkForYou holds for those devolved legislatures.

    Sadly the Scottish Parliament changed the format of their Official Report in mid January and we haven’t been able to parse the debates from then until its dissolution this March – hopefully we’ll be able to fix that at some point, and apologies for the inconvenience in the meantime.

    There don’t appear to be any central official lists of candidates in these elections. http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=11993 has a PDF of all candidates in Northern Ireland; David Boothroyd has a list of Scottish Parliament candidates. CAMRA appears to have lists for both Scotland and Wales. Those were simply found while searching for candidate lists, we obviously hold no position on those organisations :)

    Technical footnote: To look up the new Scottish Parliament boundaries using MaPit, provide a URL query parameter of “generation=15″ to the postcode lookup call. The Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries are aligning with the Parliamentary boundaries, so you can just perform a normal lookup and use the “WMC” result for the new boundary.

  3. Looking for Freelancers to Write and Update TheyWorkForYou Vote Analysis

    One of the most popular features on TheyWorkForYou is the plain English, non-judgemental vote analyses on MP pages that say things like “voted strongly against introducing a smoking ban“.  We call these ‘policies’, and they are authored by skilled people using the volunteer run PublicWhip website.

    Making each one of these policies is a painstaking task, requiring good knowledge of how the Parliamentary voting system works, good writing skills, patience, and the strength of character not to let your own views about the issues cloud the analysis. It is of utmost importance to both mySociety and our users that these policies are fair and trustworthy.

    Earlier this year we started to update the process by which we made new policies to make it even more rigorous, which we wrote about here. Marcus Fergusson and Stephen Young came onboard and did sterling work, but they have now moved on to greater things, and so we’re looking to recruit two to three new people to do this job. Uber volunteer Richard Taylor has been helping out recently, but this is really a job for two or more people.

    You might very well ask ‘why two people, given the work is part time?’. The answer is that we really want every new policy to be cross-checked by two different people every time it is added or amended. This is to help eliminate possible mistakes, and prevent any unconscious biases.

    We pay for this work on a piece work basis – £160 a time for a combination of one new policy authored, and one other policy double-checked. This money comes mainly from people making small donations, which I think helps keep everyone focussed on how important it is to get these right. We hope to add about two new policies a month, once the new team is up to speed.

    If you’d like to be considered, please email hello@mysociety.org with ‘mspolicies’ in the subject line. Applications close 22nd November 2010.

  4. How to get TheyWorkForYou Into Your Local Paper/Radio Station in 5 minutes

    The two days leading up to election day are a hugely important time for less politically-obsessive voters. The parties know that a lot of people are only starting to seriously think how to vote today and tomorrow, and TheyWorkForYou saw its biggest spike ever the day before the election, way back in 2005.

    This means it’s a super-important time to get trustworthy, non-partisan information in front of as many people as possible. And you can help by doing the following simple things:

    1. Go to your constituency page on the TheyWorkForYou Election Quiz and take a good look at the answers. Is there anything surprising in the answers? Has anyone failed to respond who really shouldn’t? Is there anything funny in the responses? Make a couple of notes about what you think are the most interesting findings.

    2. If you know the name of your local papers or radio stations, try to Google for the email or phone number of the news desk. If you don’t know the names, try sticking the name of your nearest town into a media database like this, to get a phone number or email address.

    3. If possible, you should start your pitch by phoning rather than emailing. If you get a phone number for a news desk, give them a bell and say that you’re a volunteer from “The country’s largest non-partisan election information project”, and ask for the email of a specific person who might be interested in a story about what local candidates are saying.

    4. Once you have an email address of a specific journalist, compose a locally specific email for them, along the following lines:

    “Hi X,

    I’m a resident of Z constituency, and this election I’ve been one of 6000 volunteers helping  to build an unprecedented project to get candidates across the country to go on the record, in conjunction with the website TheyWorkForYou.com. It’s a strictly non-partisan project, aimed at giving voters a really clear, spin-free view of what their candidates stand for. I’d really appreciate it if you could give it some coverage before election day.

    In my constituency, N candidates have completed our survey. From this we can see some quite interesting things, namely:

    * Candidate A thinks…

    * Candidate B thinks…

    Would you be so kind as to print a story encouraging people to check our their candidates via TheyWorkForYou.com, and mentioning some of the highlights I’ve included?

    all the best,

    Your name, email, phone”

    5. An hour after you send the email through, give the journalist a call back to see if they need any more help.

    6. If you do this, please leave us a comment on this post so we know who’s had a go!

    Thank you for helping spread some non-partisan information this election time, and enjoy the election…

  5. How did we work out the survey questions?

    As you may know, TheyWorkForYou are conducting a survey of candidates for Parliament.

    Quite a few people have been asking how we worked out the questions. There are two parts to this, one local and one national.

    Local questions

    We used the power of volunteers.

    Thousands of DemocracyClub members were asked to suggest local issues in there area. These were then edited by other volunteers, to have consistent grammar, and be worded as statements to agree/disagree with, and filtered to remove national issues. The full criteria and examples are available.

    You can view the issues for any constituency on the DemocracyClub site. They are in the “local questions” tab.

    We’ve ended up with local issues for about 85% of constituencies. They’re really interesting and high quality, and quite unique for a national survey.

    Thank you to all the volunteers who helped make this happen!

    National questions

    This was hard, because we felt that asking more than 15 questions would make the survey too long. We also wanted to be sure it was non-partisan.

    We convened a panel of judges, either from mySociety/Democracy Club or with professional experience in policy, and from across the political spectrum. They were:

    • James Crabtree, chair of judges, trustee of mySociety, journalist for Prospect magazine
    • Tim Green, Democracy club developer, Physics student, Cambridge University.
    • Michael Hallsworth, senior researcher, Institute for Government.
    • Will Davies, sociologist at University of Oxford, has worked for left of centre policy think tanks such as IPPR and Demos.
    • Andrew Tucker, researcher at Birkbeck, worked for Liberal Democrats from 1996-2000.
    • Robert McIlveen, research fellow, Environment and Energy unit at Policy Exchange, did PhD on Conservative party election strategy.

    They met at the offices of the Institute for Government, and had a 3 hour judging session on 29th March 2010. They were asked to think of 8-15 questions, with multiple choice answers, which could usefully be answered both by members of the public and prospective candidates for national office.

    To ensure maximum transparency, the discussions of the judges were recorded. You can download the recordings in two parts: part 1, part 2 (2 hours, 20 mins total).

    Details of the broad framework the judges operated under are given by the chair of judges, James Crabtree, a trustee of mySociety, in the opening to the recordings.

    Please do ask any questions in the comments below.

  6. TheyWorkForYou election survey – A message for people who work for the political parties

    The following is a message that we’d like to see emailed around within political parties of all stripes. If you work for a party, or know anyone who does, please send it along:

    ———-

    Hi there,

    TheyWorkForYou.com has sent online surveys to nearly 3000 candidates across the UK, including most of your party’s candidates. If you don’t know it, TheyWorkForYou is probably the largest politician transparency website in the UK, with about 3m visitors last year.

    The survey we’ve sent is a rigorously neutral attempt to clarify candidates positions on many of the biggest issues at the election. It is also a long-term document – the data that comes from candidate responses will be viewed millions of times between now and the general election after this one. It also contains both local and national questions.

    There are 6000+ volunteers now nagging non-responsive candidates. You can help your party improve its responsiveness rating, here, by passing on the word that TheyWorkForYou’s survey is not push-polling, not single issue, not short-termist.

    Please help us by passing on the message that TheyWorkForYou will be one of the main ways that new MPs from all parties (and none) will be scrutinised and neither we nor new MPs want to start our relationship with a “refused to go on the record” badge on their pages.

    If you are a candidate, and you want to do the survey, check your email for TheyWorkForYou (no spaces). If you don’t have it, drop a mail to developers@democracyclub.org.uk and it’ll be sent along shortly.

    many thanks,

    The staff and volunteers at TheyWorkForYou and Democracy Club

  7. TheyWorkForYou’s election survey: Status Update

    In January last year, at our yearly staff and volunteers retreat, we decided that TheyWorkForYou should do something special for the general election. We decided that we wanted to gather information on where every candidate in every seat stood on what most people would think were the biggest issues, not just nationally but locally too.

    Our reasons for setting this ambitious goal were two fold. First, we thought that pinning people down to a survey that didn’t reward rhetorical flourishes would help the electorate cut through the spin that accompanies all elections. But even more important was to increase our ability to hold new MPs to account: we want users of TheyWorkForYou in the future to be able to see how Parliamentary voting records align with campaign statements.

    This meant doing quite a lot of quite difficult things:

    1. Working out who all the candidates are (thousands of them)
    2. Working out how to contact them.
    3. Gathering thousands of local issues from every corner of the country, and quality assuring them.
    4. Developing a balanced set of national issues.
    5. Sending the candidates surveys,  and chasing them up.

    The Volunteer Army

    This has turned out to be a massive operation, requiring  the creation of the independent Democracy Club set up by the amazing new volunteers Seb Bacon and Tim Green,  and an entire candidate database site YourNextMP, built by another new volunteer Edmund von der Burg.  Eventually we managed to get at least one local issue in over 80% of constituencies, aided by nearly 6000 new volunteers spread from Lands End to John O’Groats. There’s at least one volunteer in every constituency in Great Britain, and in all but three in Northern Ireland. Volunteers have done more than just submit issues, they’ve played our duck house game  to help gather thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and postal addresses.

    The Survey

    What we ended up with is a candidate survey that is different for every constituency – 650 different surveys, in short. The survey always contains the same 15 national issues (chosen by a politically balanced panel held at the Institute for Government)  and then anything between zero and ten local issues. We’ve seen everything from cockle protection to subsidies for ferries raised – over 3000 local issues were submitted, before being painstakingly moderated, twice, by uber-volunteers checking for for spelling, grammar, obvious bias and straightforward interestingness (it isn’t really worth asking candidates if they are in favour of Good Things and against Bad Things).

    In the last couple of days we’ve started to send out the first surveys – we’ve just passed 1000 emails, and there are at least 2000 still to be sent.

    The Output

    We’re aiming to release the data we are gathering on candidates positions on 30th April. We’ll build a nice interface to explore it, but we also hope that others will do something with what we are expecting to be quite a valuable dataset.

    The Pressure

    Candidates are busy people, so how do we get their attention? Happily, some candidates are choosing to answer the survey just because TheyWorkForYou has a well know brand in the political world, but this has limits.

    The answer is that we are going to ask Democracy Club, and it’s army of volunteers to help. We’ll shortly roll out a tool that will tell volunteers which of their candidates haven’t taken the opportunity to go on the record , and provide a range of ways for them to push for their candidates to fill it in.

    It would be a lie to say we’re confident we’ll get every last candidate. But we are confident we can make sure that no candidate can claim they didn’t see, or didn’t know it was important to their constituents. And every extra voice we have makes that more likely.

    Join Democracy Club today

  8. mySociety donors – this one’s for you

    mySociety is lucky enough to have a number of small donors who give us monthly donations, normally ranging from £5-£20 (if you like our work and want to support us, please do join them!). Today we’re announcing a change to TheyWorkForYou which is supported by these donations.

    One of the most popular features on TheyWorkForYou is the vote analysis – the bit that tells you that your MP “voted strongly against introducing a smoking ban” and so on. These voting analyses cut through a massive wall of parliamentary opacity whilst still allowing visitors to examine the details first hand. Despite each analysis resulting in just a single line on TheyWorkForYou, each one is rather time-consuming to construct, and TheyWorkForYou has not updated them as much as our users deserve.

    Thanks to our small donors we’ve now been able to commission two part time researchers, Marcus Fergusson and Stephen Young, to help add new vote analyses more regularly. We’re pleased to say that we’ve just rolled out the first new policies, covering issues relating to schools, inquests and the House of Lords. We aim to add a couple of new vote analyses a month for the foreseeable future.

    We take the business of authoring analyses that are scrupulously fair and neutrally worded extremely seriously. To this end we have replaced our previously ad-hoc approach with a newly instituted process designed to ensure the maximum rigour and balance, and to ensure we focus on issues which MPs thought were important even if they were not so well covered by the media.

    TheyWorkForYou’s analysis of MP’s voting positions relies on The Public Whip, a project run by Julian Todd which tracks which way MPs vote.

    The new process for analysing MP’s positions works like this:

    1. A list of votes in the current Parliament, ordered with the highest turnout at the top, is taken as a starting point. The turnout figure used is corrected to account for party abstentions.
    2. mySociety’s researchers work down that list writing explanations in easy to read terms describing what the vote was about; they also identify other related votes on the same issue and research those too.
    3. A “policy position on the issue” is then chosen against which MP’s votes are compared to determine to what extent they agree or disagree with it. Policy positions are written to be intelligible and interesting to a wide range of users and in such a way that votes to change the status quo are ultimately described on TheyWorkForYou MP pages as votes “for” that change.

    We hope you find these analyses useful. Thanks to Richard Taylor for his divisions list and help with this post.

  9. mySociety’s Next 12 months – Part 1

    Over the last weekend of November 2009 a group of 21 mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees went to a house outside of Bristol to wrestle with the question of what mySociety should build over the next 12 months. This was the fourth time we’ve done it, and these meetings have become a crucial part of our planning.  This year, we were talking not just about what new features to add to our current sites, but also about the possibility of building an entirely new website for the first time in a couple of years. The discussions were lively and passionate because we know we have a lot to live up to: not only is our last major new site (WhatDoTheyKnow) likely to cross the 1 million unique visitors threshold this year, but we understood that there were people and organisations who weren’t there who would be counting on us to set the bar high.

    A chunk of the weekend involved vetting the 227 project ideas that were proposed via our Call for Proposals. I’m going to write a separate post on our thoughts about that process, but if you look at the list below you may spot things that were submitted in that call.

    One nice innovation that helped us whittle down our ideas from unmanageable to manageable numbers was a pairwise comparison game to help us prioritise ideas, build custom for the occasion by the wonderful and statistically talented Mark Longair.  In other words, we used the technique that powers  KittenWar.com to help decide our key strategic priorities for the next year: after all , if we don’t, who will?

    game-with-previous-answers-no-statssml

    Screenshot from the pairwise comparison game that Mark Longair coded

    By the end of the weekend we had not battened everything down – there are too many uncertainties around how much time we will have, and some key ideas that need more speccing.  However, we were able to put various things into different buckets, marked according to size and degree of certainty.  So here goes:

    1. Things which were decided at the last retreat, which we are definitely building,  and which (mostly) need doing before next year’s stuff starts getting built

    • A top level page for each bill on TheyWorkForYou
    • Future business (ie the calendar) for events in the House of Commons, including a full set of alerting options.
    • Video clips on MP pages on TheyWorkForYou
    • Epicly ambitious election data gathering and quiz building with the lovely volunteers at DemocracyClub

    2. Small new things that we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus

    • Publish a standard that councils can use to post problems like potholes in their databases to FixMyStreet and other similiar sites.
    • Template requests in WhatDoTheyKnow so that users are strongly encouraged to put in requests that are well structured.
    • After the next general election, email new MPs with various bits of info of interest to them including their new login to HearFromYourMP, their page on TheyWorkForYou, explanation of how WriteToThem protects them from spam and abuse, a double check that their contact details are correct, and a introduction to the fact that we record their correspondance responsiveness and voting records.
    • Add to WhatDoTheyKnow descriptions about what kind of public authority a specific entity is (ie ‘school’, ‘council’) and the information they are likely to hold if FOIed.
    • Show divisions (parliamentary votes) properly on debate pages on TheyWorkForYou, ie show the results of a vote on the same page as the debate where the issue was discussed, with full party breakdowns on each division.
    • Add “How to benefit from this site” page on TheyWorkForYou, inspired by OpenCongress.org
    • Help Google index TheyWorkForYou faster by creating a sitemap.xml file that is dynamically updated.
    • Using the data we expect to have from DemocracyClub’s volunteers, send a press release about every new MP and to all relevent local newspapers
    • Incorporate a council GeoRSS problem feed into FMS

    3. Slighty more time consuming things we are very probably doing because there was lots of consensus

    • 1 day per month developer time that customer support guru Debbie Kerr gets to allocate as she see fit.
    • Premium account feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to hide requests so that journalists and bloggers can still get scoops and then share their correspondance later.
    • Add Select Committees to TheyWorkForYou, including email alerts on calls for evidence.
    • Take professional advice on how to handle PR around the election

    4. Much more time consuming things and things around which there is less consensus. NB – We do not currently have the resources to do everything on this list next year – it is an ambitious target list.

    • Primary New site: TBA in a new post
    • Add a new queue feature to WhatDoTheyKnow so that users can write requests, then table them for comments from other users and expert volunteers before they are sent to the public authority
    • Relaunch our Volunteer tasks page on our sites, keep it populated with new tasks, specifically allocate resources to handhold potential volunteers. Allocate time to see if any of the ideas that we didn’t build could be parcelled into volunteer tasks.
    • Secondary New site (if we have a lot more time than we expect): Exploit extraordinary richness of Audit Comission local government target data in a TheyWorkForYou-like fashion.
    • FixMyStreet to become international with  a) maps for most of the world b)  easy to follow instructions explaining how to supply mySociety with the required data to us to enable us to turn on FixMyStreet in non UK countries or areas. This data would includ  ie gettext powered text translation files,  shapefiles of administrative boundaries, and lists of contact data.
    • Add votes and proceedings to TheyWorkForYou (where they reveal statutory instrument titles that are not debated but where the law gets changed anyway)
    • Carry out usability testing on TheyWorkForYou with then help of volunteer Joe Lanman – then implement changes recommended during a development process taking up to 10 days.
    • Add to TheyWorkForYou questions that have been tabled in the house of commons but which haven’t been answered yet.
    • Add a new interface for just councils so that they can say if a problem on FixMyStreet has changed status.

    Phew. And that’s not even counting the projects we hope to help with in Central and Eastern Europe, our substantial commercial work, or the primary new site idea, which will be blogged in Part 2.

  10. Parliamentary boundary changes

    Parliamentary boundary changes appear to be a source of confusion to many people and organisations. The facts are quite simple – parliamentary boundary changes, proposed by the various Boundary Commissions, do not take effect until the next general election. Until then, your MP remains whoever they have been, no matter what literature you may get through your letter box, or what anyone may tell you.

    As one example, take Birmingham City Council. Their page on constituencies and wards correctly states that Birmingham is divided into eleven parliamentary constituencies, but then goes on to list only ten – they are listing the new constituencies which do not yet exist, as Birmingham is losing one constituency at the next election. It appears that they have organised themselves along the new boundaries in advance – which is fine, but this doesn’t affect current Parliamentary representation, and so they should explain this clearly, as otherwise members of the public get confused (and blame us for giving them the “wrong” MP, when we haven’t done so). As you can see from the maps above (which highlight Birmingham, Hall Green), the constituencies will be changing their boundaries quite a bit, and we have had reports of people receiving letters from candidates in the next election who are MPs of different neighbouring constituencies, simply referring to themselves as an MP, which is a great source of confusion.

    An inhabitant of St Josephs Avenue, Birmingham (behind the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital), which is currently within the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency (red), and the Northfield ward of Birmingham City Council (green), would, on looking at Birmingham City Council’s website, assume they’re in a parliamentary constituency called Northfield. Northfield is currently the constituency to the west of Selly Oak; at the next election, its boundary with Selly Oak will change to the blue line, at which point St Josephs Avenue will be in the Northfield constituency. But not until then.

    Map of Streatham constituency at next election

    As another example (chosen purely as it has come up in user support), the Labour candidate for Streatham has a page about the constituency – obviously you would expect a candidate to be talking about the future constituency, but would it hurt to add some explanation that Streatham is currently a slightly different shape?

    Boundaries of different things are all independent – if a ward boundary moves due to some local issue, the corresponding Parliamentary boundary does not necessarily change with it (probably not, in fact). So when Birmingham changed its ward boundaries back in 2003, they became out of sync with the Parliamentary constituencies. From the next election, things will be more in sync as the new Parliamentary boundaries are based on more recent ward boundaries, but this will again separate over time. All we can do is always clearly explain the current situation, and ask that others do the same.